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Political Philosophy for 2018: Talking with Prof. Christopher Freiman

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“…Politicians are regular people who should not be expected to be more moral in their political lives than their economic lives. If we have this assumption that people in politics are no better than people in markets, this leads to a lot less confidence that political solutions will be any better than market solutions.”

Currently serving as an associate professor of philosophy at the College of William & Mary, Dr. Christopher Freiman conducts research primarily on democratic theory, ethics, and immigration. Frequently associated with libertarian thinking, Dr. Freiman released his first book, Unequivocal Justice, last June. On July 3rd, Professor Freiman joined Merion West to discuss his book, free markets, and his take on the current national immigration debate.

Let’s start by talking about your book Unequivocal Justice. It came out about a year ago, and it’s basically your critique of “liberal egalitarianism.” I’m curious as to how you decided to write about this and what you felt most needed to be said on this topic.

It’s certainly something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I would say the original idea came to me in graduate school, but I am generally sympathetic with liberal egalitarianism at the level of the first principle. I think it’s very important that governments respect citizens’ basic liberties and that they prioritize the well-being of the poor. John Rawls is a famous political philosopher, and he said that distributive justice requires that we make the poor as rich as possible.

But, I realized liberal egalitarians, people like Rawls, are more or less unanimous [in their belief] that the right way to go about doing this is through a strong regulatory and redistributive state. This state would regulate the economy and tax incomes to fund redistributive programs. But I think there is a lot in economics that suggests that this is the wrong way to go about it.

So, in particular, public choice economics says that government actors, voters, bureaucrats, and politicians are regular people who should not be expected to be more moral in their political lives than their economic lives. If we have this assumption that people in politics are no better than people in markets, this leads to a lot less confidence that political solutions will be any better than market solutions.

Do you see the United States as a free market, a regulatory state, or a mix of both?

I would say it’s a mix. I think we probably are overburdened by lots of regulations. We have fairly high marginal tax rates. We have trade restrictions. And we have things like occupational licensing, which makes it very hard for people to start new businesses. I’d prefer a world in which there is some sort of progressive taxation, but it is fairly light. We shouldn’t be spending trillions of dollars on things that don’t help the poor—but, actually, tend to help out the wealthy and middle class. There has to be a system that better realizes the principles of social justice than the one that we have now.

You could argue that Bernie Sanders in the 2016 election was the candidate who most avoided corporate donors. How does that fit into the system you imagine in your book?

So there are a couple of interesting questions here. One is an empirical question about the extent to which money really does influence elections. There is some reason to think that money may be chasing winners rather than creating winners. But, I also have a worry about the way some egalitarians think about getting money out of politics. People like Rawls and Rawlsians say that we have this problem—that corporate interests are essentially buying elections—and what we need to do is institute strict regulations on how money can enter politics, how elections can be run and financed, and so forth.

Maybe we set strict limits on how much people can give or what sort of advertising they can run. But the worry I have about these arguments is that they rest on the assumption that wealthy corporate interests are more or less in control of the state. If you have that assumption, then it seems to me that you shouldn’t be optimistic that any electoral regulation is actually going to constrain their interests. As I put it in the book, if the rich are in control of the states, you can’t reasonably expect the state to control the rich. That’s what some egalitarians are hoping for it to do.

So I’m also interested in your take on the ethics of capitalist systems more broadly. It’s clear that you value personal freedoms and opportunities, but what are some of the most pressing moral questions when it comes to this system?

That’s an important question. Free market people, going back to Adam Smith and even before him, say that the great virtue of the market is that it channels private self-interest towards the public good. Smith gives the example of a baker. The baker doesn’t necessarily bake you bread because he’s concerned for your well-being, but he wants you as a customer. So trade leads to this mutually beneficial outcome, and both of you are better off as a result of pursuing your self-interests. Firms that are competing for your business might offer you better quality goods at lower prices.

That being said, I do think it is important for people who endorse free markets to think about morality in terms that are broader than just self-interest. This is a point that transcends politics. I think that people who are fortunate to live in wealthy countries like the United States have the moral obligation to use some of their disposable income and resources to help people who really need it.

Moving away from economics a bit, you were involved with the Learn Liberty video on Youtube “Do You Have the Courage to Dissent?” You say it’s not always easy to speak up against the majority. I’m curious, how does that play a role in this age of social media where everyone can have an opinion?

That’s a good question. I haven’t thought of that too much. I think it might actually be easier to dissent, at least in some ways, in the age of social media because you can do it online or do it anonymously. I think the challenge is when you’re in these face-to-face situations. You’re in a classroom; you have a controversial idea about a moral or political topic, and it seems like everyone else thinks that you’re wrong. Then you’re faced with this problem of whether to speak up, potentially make some enemies, or stay safe and keep quiet. That’s the hard problem with conformity and dissent.

You teach. What are some of the ways you encourage students to speak up if they have a point to make that not everyone agrees with?

One thing is that it can be just a matter of personal demeanor. Treat all students and all opinions, with the respect that they deserve, and don’t penalize dissenting opinions. I also tell students that if you’re shy about speaking up in class, you should feel free to email me or see me after class, and we can talk about it. It’s all about welcoming differing opinions.

Do you notice any of your students being influenced by the current polarized political climate in terms of being more or less vocal?

I haven’t noticed much of a difference. In a philosophy class, fortunately, students do tend to be vocal because it is a class, which is driven by discussion and argument. One change that I have noticed is the issues students get very passionate about. The sorts of things that are in the news now, like immigration—those conversations have gotten more vigorous than they have been in the past.

Do you have a personal take on the current immigration debate?

I am a big believer in open borders myself. One thing that’s disheartening about the national debates about not just immigration, but the debates in general, is that they have become more a matter of partisan warfare than reasoned disagreement: if this is what my team stands for on immigration, then this is what I’m going to fight for. I would like to see more critical, independent reflection on the issues.

Are there steps that can be taken to get to this more critical approach?

I’m not sure. One thing that is simple is sitting down and having a cup of coffee with someone you respect and disagree with. Checking your newsfeed for stories and opinion pieces that correspond with your beliefs isn’t always healthy, but engaging with other people whose opinions you respect and having a conversation with the aim of getting a view of the other side can help. This is not a zero-sum fight, but we’re trying to learn from the other person and understand where they’re coming from. I’m cautiously optimistic that could help, but I’m not sure how likely that is.

It’s interesting you say that. Two recent politicians we’ve interviewed, Lincoln Chafee and Joe Lieberman, answered questions about the role of having personal relationships with people on the other side of the aisle.

We talked about social media before, but there is something to be said for old-fashioned, face to face interaction. It’s easier to let your emotions run wild when you’re behind the keyboard, but when you’re actually with a person in flesh and blood, you realize they’re a person just like you. I think that’s doable.

I’ve heard plenty of interviews with celebrities who were the targets of nastiness online, and then when [the celebrity] actually responds, the person [harassing them] is just like, “I can’t believe you read this. This is actually insane.”

Exactly, it proves to you that they’re actually human beings and not just a picture on a screen somewhere.

And how do you think the current administration should be handling differences of opinion on immigration, even within the Republican party?

Well, I mean I pretty much disagree with everything the current administration is doing with immigration. There is a problem right now with American nationalism and unfounded worries about the effects that immigrants are going to have on our economy and culture. I understand that some of Trump’s rhetoric probably appeals to a lot of his base, but I think it’s bad for the country that we have this “in-group” versus “out-group” mentality. This idea of building a wall to keep people out is very sad and antithetical to what the U.S. has stood for for centuries.

Thank you, Dr. Freiman.

Thank you for having me.